What does yoga have to do with your hormones? Plenty! Just about every yoga pose you do has an impact on the hormonal (endocrine) system in your body – making yoga a fabulous way to support this system and keep your hormones healthy. With focus and intention, we can use our yoga practice to keep our hormones balanced, and to help address common symptoms of hormonal imbalance.
How do we recognize when our hormones are out of balance?
The symptoms of hormonal imbalance make a long and varied list: weight gain, irregular monthly cycles, PMS, low back ache, low libido, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, thyroid imbalances, fertility issues, hot flashes, poor immune function, anxiety, depression and blood sugar imbalances, among others. If any of these sound familiar, you are not alone. Many people have come to accept these kinds of symptoms as almost “normal” – just the way things are. But in fact, they can all be linked to hormone imbalances. By choosing yoga poses that work to balance the entire endocrine system, as well as poses that target specific glands in the endocrine system, we can help to bring the hormonal system back into balance. When the hormones are balanced, many of these symptoms can be alleviated. Does this sound too good to be true? If so, read on!
How can yoga impact the hormonal system?
By doing a targeted daily yoga practice, we can help regulate our cycles, improve our fertility, balance our thyroid and decrease moodiness, just to mention a few possible impacts. The key is to understand the endocrine system, and learn what each gland is doing for us. Then, we can choose to incorporate into our daily practice yoga poses that target specific glands and hormones, depending on what symptoms we are experiencing. In addition, we can choose a practice that helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, providing general stress reduction.
While each of the glands in the endocrine system has specific functions, and can cause specific symptoms if out of balance, it is also important to note that the entire endocrine system is just that – a system. As such, one gland that is out of balance is likely to affect other glands in the system, as well. So, while we can choose yoga poses that impact specific glands, it is also important to do the kind of yoga practice that helps to keep the entire system balanced.
What causes our hormones to be out of balance?
The short answer to this question is lifestyle. Rarely, there may be a physical cause, such as a tumor or growth on one of the endocrine glands. But most of the time, hormonal imbalances are caused by lifestyle factors, including unmanaged stress, poor diet and environmental stressors For instance, if we are constantly under stress, and lack tools to manage that stress, our adrenal glands can become depleted. If we eat a diet high in carbohydrates and sugar, our pancreas can be overworked trying to offset all that sugar intake with insulin. If our daily diet doesn’t include the essential nutrients we need to produce hormones, then our whole hormonal system can be impacted. If we take in environmental toxins through our food, our cosmetics, the air we breathe and the water we drink, our hormonal system can be impacted by the endocrine disruptors in these toxins. And, if we have sedentary jobs, and don’t get much exercise, our lymphatic system can’t move the toxins out of our bodies.
How can yoga help?
Yoga’s role in stress reduction has been well-documented, through a number of scientific studies over the years. Doing a calming daily yoga practice with a focus on stress reduction is a good start on helping to balance the adrenal glands which can affect many other glands if they are overworked. Be aware, however, that not all yoga practices are stress-reducing. Some vigorous practices may cause your body to release endorphins – those “feel-good” hormones associated with “runner’s high.” But, at the same time, they may actually be stressing the body, and adding to the load on the adrenal glands. (Running has been shown to actually increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream).
Near one of the yogas studio where I teach in Seattle, a homeless street artist used to sit on the sidewalk and sell his art. I would often talk with him on my way to my class. Then, a new yoga studio went in on his section of the street, advertising a brand of hot and vigorous yoga. A few months later, as I stopped to talk to my artist friend, he said, “You’re a yoga teacher aren’t you?” When I replied “Yes,” he said, “Well, let me ask you something. I see these people going into this new studio here, and when they come out, they look worse than when they went in! I thought yoga was supposed to be good for you?” This guy had no scientific knowledge, but he had time and the artist’s power of observation. This kind of yoga may have other benefits, such as moving toxins out of your system, but it is not the best kind of practice to reduce stress and balance your hormonal system.
Choosing poses to address imbalances
Instead, if we want to counter stress effects and address hormone imbalances with yoga, we should have a practice that includes poses for each of the main endocrine centers, and is also calming to the central nervous system. In addition, if we know that we have particular issues related to specific hormones, we can also target certain endocrine centers in our practice. For example, the thyroid gland is one that is out of balance in many people, especially women. The thyroid helps regulate metabolism – i.e., how fast or slow we burn the food we eat. We can choose poses that specifically help to nourish and balance the thyroid. Poses that open or compress the throat, or cause vibration in the throat, are all helpful for this. To focus on the thyroid gland, we might choose to do poses such as bridge pose, plow pose, fish pose and some ujayii breathing or chanting:
The endocrine system and the chakra system:
From a yogic perspective, it is also interesting to note that the endocrine system is very closely aligned with the chakra system (yogic system of energy centers in the body). If you draw a map of the body showing the location of the seven major chakras, and juxtapose a drawing of the endocrine system, you will see that each major chakra contains one, or sometimes two, endocrine glands. Given the pervasive influence of hormones on our physical, emotional and mental health, it makes sense that these glands would be aligned with the chakras, which are also “power centers,” and also impact our physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual health.
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